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My Ancestors Also Came From Poor and Desperate Places

When our head of state makes such vile and bigoted statements in the course of his official business, every American is diminished. There can be no equivocating: an immigration policy based on race is an affront to American values.

January 14, 2018

Count me among the millions of Amer­ic­ans who reacted with disgust upon learn­ing that the pres­id­ent of the United States, meet­ing with lawmakers in the Oval Office, lashed out when the discus­sion turned to protect­ing immig­rants from Haiti, El Salvador and African coun­tries. Accord­ing to reli­able witnesses, the pres­id­ent said: “Why are we having all these people from shithole coun­tries come here?” He sugges­ted the United States should instead bring in more people from “coun­tries such as Norway.” Derid­ing “chain migra­tion,” the abil­ity of new immig­rants to reunite their famil­ies here, he pressed for a “merit-based” immig­ra­tion system.

When our head of state makes such vile and bigoted state­ments in the course of his offi­cial busi­ness, every Amer­ican is dimin­ished. There can be no equi­voc­at­ing: an immig­ra­tion policy based on race is an affront to Amer­ican values.

Of course, Donald Trump is hardly the first politi­cian to denig­rate immig­rants. Indeed, he taps into a deeply rooted nativ­ism that goes back to our coun­try’s earli­est days. As early as 1798, react­ing to an influx of polit­ical refugees after the French Revolu­tion, Congress restric­ted the rights of immig­rants through the Alien and Sedi­tion Acts. The Know-Noth­ing move­ment of the nine­teenth century was a power­ful force seek­ing to halt the immig­ra­tion of Cath­ol­ics from Germany and Ireland who threatened to change the face of an Anglo-Saxon Prot­est­ant coun­try.

Trump’s fantasy of deserving Norwe­gian immig­rants aside, the wonder­ful and complic­ated story of Amer­ican immig­ra­tion has been the story of undesir­able people coming from unhappy places to the consterna­tion of many. I know this because it’s the story of my own family.

In addi­tion to my day job at the Bren­nan Center for Justice, I spend some of my free time on a personal passion: family history research. Through the dogged pursuit of old records – church ledgers, passen­ger ship mani­fests, censuses and natur­al­iz­a­tion peti­tions – I have pieced together fairly detailed accounts of the lives my ancest­ors lived in the border regions of fail­ing empires. They are the stor­ies of collapsed econom­ies and milit­ary occu­pa­tions and family tragedies. The lives my fore­bears left behind were not very nice at all.

Take my grand­father, Alex Kowal. The son of an abus­ive alco­holic, Alex was born in the village of Kharucha Vel’ka in modern day Ukraine, in what was then a remote province of the Russian Empire. Living a hard­scrabble rural life, Alex never got an educa­tion. His older brother was taken away one day by Russian soldiers, prob­ably for parti­cip­at­ing in an illegal labor strike. At the age of 19, Alex found a way out when repres­ent­at­ives of the Canada Pacific Rail­way came look­ing for laborers. Alex found himself board­ing a boat for Hali­fax with over a hundred other Ukrain­ian men, all members of a Ukrain­ian Cath­olic sect suppressed by the ruling Russi­ans. Alex spent a long, cold winter chop­ping down trees in Quebec before coming to the U.S. with a small group of friends. He had $11 to his name. Build­ing a new life in Amer­ica through a lifelong series of odd jobs, Alex never saw his family again. He escaped many horrors that befell the place of his birth, includ­ing a geno­cidal famine that killed millions.

His wife, my grand­mother Katar­zyna Bosakowska, came from the small town of Zalozce in the remote north­east corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The daugh­ter of a milit­ary veteran and grand­daugh­ter of a serf, Katar­zyna was born into a some­what better life. She received a grade school educa­tion. But she saw the economy of her town, based on the small-scale produc­tion of boots for the Austrian milit­ary, wither and die as big industry destroyed their live­li­hoods. So Katar­zyna became part of what our pres­id­ent derides as a “chain migra­tion” to new lives in New York. It star­ted with older cous­ins who found work and sent money back to pay for the passage of others. Katar­zyna was one of at least 20 cous­ins, the sons and daugh­ters of three broth­ers, who emig­rated to Amer­ica between 1905 and 1921. She arrived at Ellis Island at the age of 22 with $13 in her pocket. As a woman arriv­ing alone, she was denied admis­sion until her male cousin came to vouch for her. She found employ­ment as a live-in maid until she married four years later. By then, the outbreak of World War I would ravage the home she left behind. Advan­cing Russian and Austrian armies swept back and forth, redu­cing Zalozce to ruins.

My great-grand­father Andrej Sabol was born in the small town of Trebejov in what is now east­ern Slov­akia, an area that to this day is the butt of jokes for people in that part of the world (think Arkan­sas). The region was under the control of Hungari­ans who suppressed Slovak language and culture. Andre­j’s family belonged to a small community of Evan­gel­ical Luther­ans, a disfavored reli­gious minor­ity which enjoyed some latit­ude to prac­tice their faith because they were only a bunch of bump­kins anyway. From an 1870 census return, I know that Andrej grew up in a two-room house with 14 inhab­it­ants. They scratched out a living as tenant farm­ers. Chol­era swept the town when Andrej was just a baby. Three members of his house­hold died. When Andrej was 19, he followed friends and neigh­bors who were begin­ning to migrate to the small town of Raritan, New Jersey. Over time, Andre­j’s broth­ers and cous­ins followed, as did hundreds of friends and neigh­bors. After his father froze to death one partic­u­larly brutal winter, his mother came over too. Together, these Slovak Luther­ans recre­ated their village in Raritan, centered around their church. There they suppor­ted each other under diffi­cult circum­stances, work­ing hard to rise out of poverty.

These stor­ies are hardly unique. How many Amer­ic­ans would be here today without “chain migra­tion” from impov­er­ished and desper­ate places? And how many of our fore­bears, from wherever they hailed, would have qual­i­fied for immig­ra­tion under a “merit-based” system?

Look­ing back a century or more, it is easy to roman­ti­cize the tales of our immig­rant ancest­ors. But many Amer­ic­ans disdained them and the places they came from.  After the huge immig­ra­tion wave of the early 20th century – which filled the tene­ments of East Coast cities with Jews, Itali­ans and Slavs – Congress imposed national origin quotas to limit “undesir­able” immig­ra­tion, favor­ing north­ern European coun­tries over all others for decades.

But despite many hard­ships, includ­ing discrim­in­a­tion based on their national origin, I know the stor­ies of my immig­rant ancest­ors led to many happy endings: gener­a­tions of descend­ants who have lived product­ive lives in a free coun­try, contrib­ut­ing as fire fight­ers and fact­ory work­ers and teach­ers and lawyers. Why should we doubt that today’s newest Amer­ic­ans, follow­ing a similar path, will enrich this coun­try for gener­a­tions to come?

(Photo: AP)